Why Did This Happen? by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Why Did This Happen?

Frederica Mathewes-Green on the Questions Raised by September 11

On the day after the tragedy I drove through Washington, D.C., surprised to find it uncongested and tranquil. I went past the battered Pentagon, where cars crept along the interstate at a few miles an hour as people craned their necks to see and comprehend our national wound. A few miles further, down among the suburban office towers, is a tiny old white clapboard church.

I stepped inside the cool interior, which was dimly lit and covered on walls and ceiling with paintings of Christ and the apostles, of biblical figures and heroes from long ago. I took a seat to wait for my spiritual father and looked around. I saw faces of men and women who had known suffering, much more severe than what I had ever experienced, even as rocked as I felt just then. They stood serene around the walls, many holding symbols of victory.

Fr. George Calciu came out from beside the altar and greeted me. He is a small, resilient man, unusually vigorous for his 76 years. His hair and beard are thick and white, and his face is permanently creased with the marks of indomitable good cheer. Cheerfulness is an unlikely attribute, given his story. In his native Romania, Fr. George challenged the Communist authorities repeatedly and forcefully, with a courage that defied self-preservation. He was confined in brutal prisons, subjected to brainwashing, and formed a lifelong friendship with a fellow prisoner, the late Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ.

Today the first thing he asked me was, “Why do you think that happened yesterday?”

I was stumped for a minute. I hadn’t thought of exactly that question. I said “I don’t know.”

Fr. George said, “It was the punishment of God.”

Something Not Thought Of

Well, there’s something I hadn’t thought of. Though I wondered why I hadn’t; I’ve just finished an intensive study of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and knew that the Jews have always seen even that brutal and sacrilegious tragedy as divine retribution for their sins. In fact, that seems to be the Old Testament pattern; any time Israel suffered a military defeat, they responded with repentance. It didn’t replace other strategic responses but was an indispensable companion.

This isn’t just an Old Testament phenomenon. When people told Jesus that Pilate had killed worshipers at the Temple, he responded, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). There seems to be a biblical pattern here: National suffering should bring about repentance.

I have often wondered what might return our sick culture to health. I’ve sometimes felt overwhelmed at the ugliness of America’s spiritual condition, at 40 million children killed by abortion, at the promotion worldwide of sexual promiscuity and materialism, the contempt of God, the spreading infection of American culture.


Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for Beliefnet.com and a contributor to the Christian Millennial History Project multi-volume series. Her books include At the Corner of East and Now (Putnam), The Illumined Heart (Paraclete Press), and The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press). She lives in Linthicum, Maryland, with her husband Fr. Gregory, pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church. They have three children and three grandchildren.

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